ON KILLING KIN
Amiri's arms burned as she hauled herself upward. Her hands cramped from finding tenuous grips on small extrusions of stone, and one particularly vicious bit of rock had sliced open a good gash below her knee out of what she assumed was sheer spite. She unspooled her rope as she went, securing it whenever she found an anchor point she was sure could bear Branum and Oska's weight.
Below her, the siblings moved slowly. They'd lashed themselves together and to the rope, and Oska helped haul her brother upward, pointing out easy hand- and footholds wherever she could. Oska looked up, the light from above casting a narrow band across her face. "Getting tired yet?" she called up. "You're slowing down."
"How about you don't insult the woman with the rope," Amiri replied, scowling down at her.
"How about… we all… just try… not to plunge to our deaths," Branum panted.
"From that height, you probably wouldn't die from the fall. You'd shatter your legs and starve to death," Amiri said.
"You'd die of thirst way before starving to death," Oska countered.
"Is this… supposed to be making me feel better?" Branum asked. He paused, clinging to the rope as he struggled to catch his breath.
"I'm not going to let you fall," Oska said seriously.
"I know. Besides, I could… always give us… a soft landing. I'm not… completely useless," Branum reminded her. He waggled his fingers, and a few anemic sparks of light danced around them.
"Stop showing off and save your strength. Come on. Halfway there," she said, fondness in her voice.
He nodded, steeled himself, and began to climb again. He was an odd one to find among the Six Bears, Amiri thought. He trusted his sister—and more than that, he readily accepted her aid and comfort. Not once had he objected to her taking the lead on physical tasks. It truly didn't seem to bother him that a woman was stronger than he was. That wasn't a trait she'd encountered from her kinsmen often. Or ever.
Amiri pulled herself up to a new handhold, then paused. It wasn't far to the top, now—she was close enough to see beyond the slim opening to a ceiling of stone. The top of the shaft led to another sheltered area, but given the light coming down through it, it wasn't entirely covered.
From above came a series of yips and snarls, then the scrambling of claws. Amiri gestured sharply for the others to halt and be silent as the growling intensified. Something clattered, and then a few bones—gristle still clinging to them—toppled over the side of the shaft. Amiri clung tight to the wall to avoid the debris. Branum stifled a startled sound as a femur smacked his shoulder.
Wait, Amiri motioned. The snarling and yipping and scrabbling continued. The cubs were playing.
The sounds went on for several minutes before falling into abrupt silence. Amiri waited another few moments, then began to climb again. They moved without speaking now, slow but steady.
Before long, Amiri was at the top of the shaft. She pushed her head and shoulders out of the opening, scanning for the peryton and its cubs.
The cubs lay curled up together on the far side of a large rock overhang, its floor littered with bones, offal, and half-eaten carcasses. One of the cubs had fallen asleep gnawing on a skull that might have belonged to a halfling; the other had a hand, half stripped of flesh, tucked between its paws. Beyond the overhang was a small plateau with slopes dropping off precipitously to all sides. There was no sign of the larger creature.
Amiri climbed out as silently as she could, then turned to help the others. Oska moved off to the side to push as Amiri pulled, and they got Branum up onto level ground, where he half-crouched and half-collapsed, wheezing as quietly as he could. Oska scrambled up, quick as a squirrel, but her arms were shaking, and she flexed her hands like they were cramped.
Amiri's limbs weren't thanking her, either. "Best go before the mother comes back," she whispered.
Oska nodded and tapped Branum's shoulder. He suppressed a groan as he staggered up to his feet, and they edged along the side of the sheltered area, Oska leading and Amiri taking up the rear to keep an eye on the cubs.
One moment, Oska was stepping out into the open, looking behind her with a frown to track her brother's progress. The next moment she was gone, snatched into the air with a scream.
"Oska!" Branum yelled. Amiri shoved past him. The peryton's wingbeats scattered dust and debris as the creature climbed, the grip of its hind talons piercing the flesh of Oska's shoulders. The girl screamed in pain and twisted—not to get free, but to throw her bow and quiver as hard as she could. They clattered to the ground 20 feet away. Amiri dove for them, snatched them up.
She sighted along the arrow. Waiting. The peryton circled around, moving awkwardly due to Oska's thrashing weight beneath it.
"Damn it, hold still or it'll drop you off the cliff!" Amiri shouted. "Wait!"
The creature banked, passing high overhead. Oska, miraculously, went still in its grip.
"Hope you weren't lying about that soft landing," Amiri said to Branum, not waiting for him to answer. The peryton's shadow darkened the edge of the plateau.
Amiri loosed the arrow. It struck the beast's left hind talon. The creature let out a strangled yelp of pain and lost its grip on the struggling huntress. She plunged downward. Branum reached out a hand and cried out a single word. Oska landed in a light crouch as the peryton tumbled in the air, righted, and wheeled away.
"Can we drive it off?" Branum asked. "Run?"
"We were in its nest. Its cubs are in there. It isn't going to leave us alone now," Amiri said. She tossed the bow and quiver back to Oska, who winced as she worked her punctured shoulders. Amiri unstrapped the unwieldy, broken base of her sword from her back, gripping the hilt in both hands.
The peryton's shadow glided over the plateau once more. Only its shape was wrong.
"It took your shadow," Oska said, seeing the same. She gave Amiri a considering look. "It's coming for you."
"Which means you could run," Amiri replied. "It won't chase you while I'm still standing."
The beast howled. It folded its wings in a dive, eyes fixed on Amiri. Oska and Branum fell back. And Amiri leapt to meet the creature's charge.
They met in the air—blade and beast, fang and fury. The peryton's eyes blazed with the fire of a mother whose cubs had been threatened. Amiri's blood sang with rage of her own. Anger for the beast, yes—but her old anger burned far brighter as she tumbled to the stony ground with the monster.
She chanced a quick glance: the siblings were gone. Good, she thought. They'd be safe. They'd live. Maruk wouldn't have any more reason to haunt her.
Her jagged blade slashed across the beast's chest, and the mountains rang with her brothers' mocking laughter. Teeth snapped in the air an inch from her throat, and the air slithered with whispers. It isn't right. She brings shame to all of us. Something must be done.
They had betrayed her. Made a fool of her. Humiliated her and tried to lead her to her death. But they had failed. She had showed them her true strength.
She struck at the peryton again and again in a storm of steel and claw. It darted in for quick attacks, retreating before she could get a proper strike in. Any time she closed, it used a few quick wingbeats to reposition, sending her scrambling around the plateau, wary of the sheer cliffs to every side. The broken blade was unbalanced and unwieldy. Fury collapsed into frustration, and she stood panting, both her and the beast bleeding from a half dozen minor wounds.
She'd put her back to the sheltered overhang, steering clear of the precipitous drop-offs—all too aware of how easy it would be for the peryton to fling her over the edge with a toss of its gore-rimed antlers.
A sharp pain shot through Amiri's calf. She let out a cry of pain, twisting and striking out. The broken blade swung, cleaving in half the peryton cub that had sunk its teeth into her leg. The other sprang up, needle teeth clamping around her wrist, as its mother let out a howl and charged.
Amiri flung the cub away as the larger beast's antlers caught her up and threw her back against the far wall of the cave. Her head hit stone with a crack. Stars burst in her vision, and she collapsed to the ground in a stunned crouch. The peryton paced forward, opening its jaws to bare its yellowed teeth.
There was a crackling sound, and lightning arced, blasting into the peryton's side. Two arrows followed in quick succession, and the peryton screamed, rearing away. Amiri launched herself forward, stars still dancing in her eyes, and dashed past the beast.
Oska and Branum stood at the edge of the plateau. Branum raised his hands, light dancing at his fingertips. Oska set another arrow to her bow. Amiri skidded to a stop in front of them.
"What do you think you're doing?" she demanded. "I told you to run."
"Talked it over. Decided not to listen to you," Branum said cheerfully.
"We don't leave kin to fight alone," Oska said firmly.
Amiri stared. It had been a long time—a very long time—since anyone had claimed her as kin. "I killed your father," she said hollowly. "He was a good man. More or less."
"You killed your kin," Oska agreed. Her eyes were bright. "But you know what, Amiri? I'm better than you."
The peryton staggered into the light. It reared up on its hind legs, bellowing out a call to shake the mountains.
Amiri and her kin turned to face it.
Illustration by Michael Penn
Amiri dumped the waterskin over her head, rinsing some of the blood out of her hair. The sun was going down. The cold air would keep the peryton's corpse, laid out on the plateau behind her, from rotting. But there were other scavengers in these mountains, and they'd be along soon to take their portion of the kill.
Oska had already carved the antlers from its head and bound them together to carry over her shoulder, as a trophy.
"You know you won't be able to claim that as your kill," Amiri said. She flicked her wet hair back from her face.
Oska didn't meet her eyes. "I'll say Branum killed it."
Branum laughed aloud. "Yeah, they'll certainly believe that."
"We'll figure it out," Oska said, securing her makeshift straps.
Amiri just shook her head. She'd never have let someone else claim one of her deeds at that age. She'd have shouted it to the whole clan at every opportunity.
And look how that turned out, she thought. She spat.
"Can I have that?" Branum asked. Amiri gave him a questioning look. He gestured at the two halves of her blade that rested on the ground beside her.
"You couldn't even lift the thing," she told him, amused.
"I mean I can fix it for you," Branum said.
Oska straightened up. A frown creased her lips. "That's the sword that—"
"It's a sword," Branum said. "Just a tool. What matters is who wields it, not what it's done."
Amiri gave him a level look. "The woman who wields this sword is the one that killed your father," she reminded him. "You really want to give me my blade back?"
Branum looked over at the dead peryton. "Honestly? I want you to die a slow and painful death," he said, his cheerful tone unwavering. "But that wouldn't do anybody any good, would it? You took my father from me. I've got no interest in forgiving you. And I've got no interest in being a kinslayer. So now I get to choose how I carry that—how I bear my choices without breaking. This is how I'm going to do it."
He stepped forward and reached for the sword. Neither Amiri nor Oska said anything to stop him as he dragged the pieces over to a clear patch of ground. He stood with an expression of deep concentration, his hands held over the blade.
Slowly, the segments shivered toward one another. The metal gleamed. The seam lit with a soft, silver light—and then the light faded, and the blade was whole once more.
Branum stepped away, not touching it again. He bent to pick up his pack and settled it on his shoulder. "That's done, then," he said simply.
Amiri hefted the blade. The familiar pull at her muscles was welcome. The guilt needling through her was not.
"Let's go," Oska said, touching her brother's arm. They turned away.
"Don't go back," Amiri said, staring at the sword. Behind her, their footsteps halted.
"What else are we supposed to do?" Oska asked.
"Just leave." Amiri lowered the sword and turned toward them. "Leave before they find a way to kill you, or kill everything you are."
"It's not that easy," Oska said.
Amiri's lips twisted. "If it was, maybe I could've done it, before it was too late. But you're smarter than I ever was. Or your brother is, at least."
Oska and Branum glanced at each other. "We don't hate the Six Bears," Branum said.
"Neither did I. I loved my brothers," Amiri said. "Didn't stop them trying to kill me. Didn't stop me killing them."
"Where are we supposed to go, then? With you?" Oska asked scornfully.
Amiri snorted. "None of us would survive that," she said, and Oska chuckled in reluctant agreement. "The world's bigger than you think. Go see what it holds. Leave—while you still have the option of coming home, if you decide that's what you want."
Oska didn't answer. Neither did Branum. They turned away, setting out without another word. But Branum looked at Oska, and Oska looked at Branum, and Amiri could tell that each was thinking of the other. Of the things they could achieve, if they found the place where they belonged.
They'd leave, she thought. Not for themselves, but each for the other. Maybe someday they would even return—as she never could.
Amiri made her way down the opposite flank of the mountain, away from the siblings. Away from the Six Bears.
The wind howled between the peaks. She listened long and hard, but there were no words within. It was only the wind.
About the Author
Kate Alice Marshall is the author of young adult and middle grade novels, including I AM STILL ALIVE, RULES FOR VANISHING, and THIRTEENS. She lives outside of Seattle with her husband, two dogs named Vonnegut and Octavia, and two kids. They all conspire to keep her on her toes. See katemarshallbooks.com for more information.
About Iconic Encounters
Iconic Encounters is a series of web-based flash fiction set in the worlds of Pathfinder and Starfinder. Each short story provides a glimpse into the life and personality of one of the games’ iconic characters, showing the myriad stories of adventure and excitement players can tell with the Pathfinder and Starfinder roleplaying games.